Unfinished business: Orange Bowl as opportunity for Virginia to build, grow
A win Monday in the Orange Bowl, then, would be the biggest win in program history, by a long shot.
It didn’t seem as recently as a few weeks ago that anything like this opportunity would be in the offing.
“I think we addressed that after the Louisville loss, when we put up each possible record and said, which do you want to be. Coach said we can be here, at I think it was 6-6, something like that, or we can be down here at 10-3, going into bowl week it would have been. That’s what we addressed then, and everyone – we kind of said, well, we want to be in that lower section, so we realized that we could be there,” senior tight end Tanner Cowley said.
That Louisville loss, a 35-21 setback back on Oct. 26, was the nadir, leaving Virginia, the preseason favorite in the ACC Coastal, at 5-3 overall, 3-1 in the ACC, still in control of its destiny as far as the division title was concerned, but barely.
That seems so long ago now. UVA went on to win its next four games to win the division, play its way into the Orange Bowl, and leave one other preseason goal on the table: a 10-win season.
That’s been done just once before at Virginia, back in 1989.
That 10-win season came in George Welsh’s eighth season at Virginia.
This time around, UVA Football is looking to go from a rebuild to double digits in half the time under Bronco Mendenhall.
Where the program is now, senior quarterback Bryce Perkins said, is “a testament to our hard work throughout the summer, our hard work and transition from last year to this year, and the culture and the players who built and kind of set the platform when they first got here.”
“A lot of these guys were on the two-win team and kind of see the transition from the program and how it came from not a bowl game to three bowl games in a row,” said Perkins, who will helm the ‘Hoos for the last time on Monday night.
Mendenhall’s first team at Virginia finished 2-10 in 2016. He had the team in a bowl in 2017, but a 49-7 loss to Navy in the Military Bowl left that team with a 6-7 record.
Perkins arrived in 2018 and led the Cavaliers to the Belk Bowl and an 8-5 finish, setting the stage for the high expectations heading into 2019.
The expectations themselves were a sort of high bar for a program full of players who play with chips on their shoulders from feeling overlooked in the recruiting process.
“I was coming out of high school, only had one scholarship offer, and it was Virginia. So, for them to believe in me and then now to kind of help turn this all around, be part of something new, and I believe in Coach Mendenhall and everything he’s trying to establish. … to be able to look back and say I was one of the people that started that, I think that’s one of the coolest things in the world,” junior linebacker Charles Snowden said.
You could forgive the guys who put the hard work in to get Virginia Football to this stage for thinking they’ve already accomplished what they needed to just in getting to the Orange Bowl.
No Virginia team had ever won a division championship before. This team was the first since 2003 to beat Virginia Tech.
“No matter what happens, we’ve had a great season. Nine wins, beat Virginia Tech. But we’re not looking at that like that’s enough,” senior defensive tackle Eli Hanback said. “We came here to play a football game. At the end of the day, thank you to the Orange Bowl for giving us this opportunity to be able to play here, but we’re here to play a football game, and that’s how we’re looking at it.”
Play a football game, and win it.
That’s the mission.
“We’d be the second team in UVA history with a 10-win season, another SEC opponent that we can really face and show the world of college football that UVA is an up-and-coming program, that it’s a force to be reckoned with, and that this opponent right here is very important,” junior safety Joey Blount said.
“It would mean just everything that we’ve put in this past year and all the hard work and dedication that goes into this program and everybody from the top down, it just would mean everything,” junior linebacker Zane Zandier said.
“It would mean the world for everybody because like just coming from 2-10 a few years ago, this is a huge jump. To be on such a big-time bowl game that this stage is like set perfectly for us to rebuild this program,” junior defensive end Mandy Alonso said.
“We’ve talked about it a couple times. Actually only one team in UVA history has had 10 wins, and to go out with 10 wins and be in that company would be great and then just raise the bar for UVA football going forward,” senior wideout Joe Reed said.
For the seniors, like Reed, Snowden, Cowley, Perkins, raising the bar for future teams to try to leap over is a focal point heading into Monday’s game.
Perkins, in particular, seems very aware of what this game means not just for this group, but also the future of Virginia Football.
“I mean, for us, we know that this is not the ceiling for us, so I think as a team, we know that our team and organization is built on unbroken growth, and you look at Coach Mendenhall’s years here, from two wins, to six wins, to eight wins, to nine wins and looking forward to being ten, we think and we know how we run and how our culture is operated and set up, that it’s built to keep increasing and keep moving forward,” Perkins said.
“I mean, next year most of the guys are coming back. We’re losing great guys on both sides of the ball, but this team is stacked with talent, and we’re in the Orange Bowl for the first time, and I expect that we’ll do even better next year. That’s the way Coach Mendenhall’s programs are built, and the way that I see us going for the years to come.”
Story by Chris Graham